The image above is from Russia’s practice for the upcoming May 9 parade. For weeks, Russian troops have been marching around the town, showing off their parade uniforms and driving some cleaned up, and hopefully decently maintained, vehicles along the streets, prepared to bring Moscow some of that military pomp so beloved of Soviet leaders and Donald Trump. This particular group is being lead by a new T-90M tank. It’s a 2017 update of Russia’s latest in-production tank.
The most notable upgrade to the T-90M is that it carries a new generation of Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) that’s designed to stop incoming missiles and shells in their tracks. Its armor was specifically designed with the promise that it would stop anti-tank weapons, and even survive multiple incoming weapons striking at the same time. And you can see exactly how well that worked in practice by checking out the T-90M below.
As far as anyone is aware, the number of T-90Ms sent to Ukraine so far would be one. The number still in operation would be zero. Overall, Russia has managed to roll out about 20 of the T-90M upgrades, but the remaining ones are apparently being held close to Moscow at the moment. After all, they’re needed for critical parade duty.
The same goes for Russia’s T-14 Armata. This angular next generation tank has been appearing in Moscow’s May 9 parades since 2015. However, to date it seems that fewer than a dozen have actually rolled off the line, with changes still being made and reported issues with multiple systems. A couple of them have at least been allowed to get dirty.
If a T-14 shows up in Ukraine, don’t take it as a sign that Russia has confidence in its super tank. Take it as a sign of desperation.
After all, Russia is just four days away from a parade where it expected to celebrate its easy victory over Ukraine. Vladimir Putin fully believed that he would be standing in the bleachers, saluting the victors of the in Battle of Kyiv, maybe with a few acolytes from his new Ukrainian puppet government looking on for good measure. Even when it became clear that the parade was not going to feature Volodomyr Zelenskyy being dragged along in chains, there was still the hope that sticking all of Russia’s forces into the Donbas would allow them to overwhelm Ukraine, and push to the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in time for the parade to start. Only … nope.
That’s okay. They could always bring in Belarus to drag Ukrainian forces to the west. Or how about a referendum in Kherson that would form a new “people’s republic?” Or an attack from Transnistria? Or Azovstal! They could at least finish off Azovstal and celebrate May 9 by declaring that Mariupol, so beautifully remodeled by Russian artillery, was eager to join up. Azovstal, yes!
On Monday, Russian forces resumed hitting the Azovstal complex with both artillery and hundreds of dumb bombs dropped by strategic bombers. Russian ships in the Sea of Azov joined in, blasting the site with massive shells.
Before the smoke had even cleared, Russian forces attempted to storm the Azovstal complex, entering its maze of tunnels and chambers to root out the unknown number of remaining Ukrainian fighters from their positions deep underground. Throughout the day, there were reports of hand to hand fighting, and “bloody conflict.” On the surface, structures were blasted with explosives and set on fire in an attempt to burn every building remaining on the site to the ground.
For three days now, that fight has continued above ground and underground. Russian sources insisted on Monday that Azovstal was in “its final hours.” But they’ve said that before.
With four more days remaining, it’s entirely possible that Putin will get the only peace he wants in Mariupol in time for his parade: the peace of the grave. After all, there is always gas that could be used against the defenders still evading his forces underground. There is always all that rubble available to block all the potential exits. If Putin wants everyone in the complex dead—including the forces that are not part of the Azov regiment, including the wounded who were not allowed to leave the hospital on the site, and including the civilians still trapped there—he can almost certainly have it.
On May 9, it’s almost certain that some selected “victors of Mariupol”—or some nice, tall, appropriately photogenic roleplayers—are going to join Putin’s parade. And that really would be appropriate. They can celebrate the butchery of Bucha, the 600 women and children who died in the basement of Mariupol’s theater, the thousands of civilians buried in still-undiscovered mass graves, and the tens of thousands of Ukrainians being enslaved in Russian labor camps a continent away from their homes. They can celebrate the destruction. They can celebrate rape. They can celebrate a second Holodomor.
It’s really the only appropriate theme.
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It’s not so hard to understand, really. Putin is a mediocre ventriloquist.
This translation of Russian soldiers coming to Popasna ready to rock, then finding themselves fed into a meatgrinder, gives some idea of what Ukrainian forces are doing there that makes taking this small town right on the edge of territory Russia has occupied for eight years so difficult to take.
In preparing for this situation, Ukraine has created a series of heavy concrete bunkers with windows they can open to use machine guns when Russian forces are approaching. Then, when Russian forces surround them, they close those shutters and call in an artillery strike on their own positions.
This allows Ukraine to keep their artillery back outside the range of Russian shells. Russia advances, moves into the town, then Ukraine closes the shutters and shells the town until nothing moves. Then it opens the shutters again. And waits.
It’s entirely possible that Popasna will be overrun at any time. But the cost to Russia of just this one small town on the map of Ukraine has been incredible.
Inspired by the translation above, get ready to dance the Popasna Polka!
Early on Thursday, Telegram started lighting up with reports that Ukrainian forces were pressing a counter-attack into the Izyum salient, with several reports suggesting Ukrainian forces were striking from the area of Bazaliivka.
I did not include that in the first update, because it seemed too improbable. But as the day has gone on, that word is getting repeated everywhere. Cross your fingers.
NASA’s FIRMS fire map activity on Thursday certainly indicates that something is happening in the area west of Izyum. Frankly, from the position of these strikes, it looks like both sides flailing away. The area on the east side of this map represents Russian shelling of Ukrainian positions in that valley south of Oskil. They’ve been getting pounded like this for days.
But all that activity west of Izyum is new. It’s widespread and there’s a lot of it.
Here’s some additional data from FIRMS in the area directly northeast of Kharkiv. You can see that Ukraine is blasting away at the two towns (Shestakove and Fedorivka) that are on the main road connecting Kharkiv and Staryi Saltiv. Clearing these locations would solidify Ukraine’s hold on this area.
What I’m not seeing at the moment is any suggesting that Ukraine is actually moving directly east in the area north of Izyum as many posts had indicated … stay tuned.
There are reports that Russian forces have withdrawn from the town of Ruski Tyshky north of Kharkiv. However, the bridge between this town and the neighboring Cherkaski Tyshky has been destroyed, so it’s unlikely Ukrainian forces will be occupying the site in strength before a clear route is located.